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Last Updated: Friday, 13 April 2007, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Search begins for GB superstar
By Piers Newbery

Maria Sharapova's handbag could hold the key to turning around the fortunes of British women's tennis.

Carl Maes
Maes captained Belgium to the Fed Cup final last year
As part of the changes sweeping through the Lawn Tennis Association, Kim Clijsters' former coach Carl Maes has been appointed as head of women's tennis.

And in assessing the profile of tennis among Britain's girls, Maes says: "My daughter might not want to meet Boris Becker but she does want to know what Maria Sharapova carries in her handbag."

One of his more high-profile ideas is to get young British girls to meet leading international players on a regular basis.

Along with the ongoing talent ID roadshows, Maes admits "this all might seem a little bit similar to what has been done before".

But having been starved of success for so long in Britain, the Belgian is determined to address the lack of role models in tennis for girls.

"The goal is to promote the girls' game and to make it a lot more sexy than it has been in the past," says Maes.

"Tim and Greg and now Andy have done a great job for tennis in this country, but if I speak to the parents who are actually committed to tennis and are happy to make sacrifices for their children to become a tennis player, they are mostly parents of boys.

We have to put our hands up and admit that our top-ranked female player is 169 this week, we're not hiding that fact

Nigel Sears
"We might not have the top-10 player on the women's side like on the men's but I very much see an opportunity there with the appointments of these coaches, and maybe bringing in some top players to inspire the young girls."

A glance at the world rankings tells of the dire state of the women's game in Britain.

Nigel Sears, former coach to Daniela Hantuchova, has been brought in by Maes to work with the key players and captain the Fed Cup side.

"We have to put our hands up and admit that our top-ranked female player is 169 this week, we're not hiding that fact," says Sears.

And while the likes of Anne Keothavong and Elena Baltacha can expect to benefit from the new coaches and facilities available to them, the focus is already on the next generation.

"The first age group we can probably hope to impact is the 15/16 year olds," says Sears.

"Obviously we'll try our very best to get the best out of our current crop of senior players but a lot our energy has gone into analysing the 15 to 17-year-old age group.

"We've selected 10 or 12 names for the junior Fed Cup squad who we really believe have some kind of a chance of playing the tour, and who really want to do that."

Maes and his compatriot Steven Martens, who will look at the under-12 age group, have been taken on by the LTA specifically because of their work with female players.

"If you look at a 14-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man, you're talking about a different sport almost," says Maes.

"A 14-year-old girl and a 20-year-old woman, they more or less play the same game. The game style is not going to change that much because the physical maturity doesn't have that much impact on it."

While Brad Gilbert, Paul Annacone and Peter Lundgren have joined the LTA revolution on the men's side, plenty of experienced coaches have been brought in to help the women.

Jens Gerlach is a former coach of Anastasia Myskina, while Simon Walsh helped Samantha Stosur and Katarina Srebotnik, among others, into the top 100.

"Jens is someone at the very highest level who knows the difference in standard between mediocrity and the absolute top in the world," says Maes.

"Simon has a lot of experience in bringing four players outside the top 100 to inside the top 100. He's been almost an expert in doing that."

Maes calls for patience in judging the LTA's revolution and it remains to be seen whether he can deliver a British Clijsters, but he is in it for the long haul.

"From the age of 10 is really when you start to practice more hours per week than your age and at this moment we haven't got girls who are doing that," he says.

"You can't catch up overnight but in 10 years time - that's when I'm ready to be axed if it's not good enough."


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